F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Coi (San Francisco); Plum, Plum Bar and Haven
Education: Duke University (Durham, NC)
What are you known for?
The use of essential oils and aromas, of vegetables, of wild or foraged food, and, I hope, a certain playfulness.
Favorite cookbooks of all time?
I get excited when a cookbook can convey an original story in a distinctive voice. Peter Meehan did a magnificent job with the Momofuku book. The Noma cookbook is brilliant in its visual language. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s books, like The Cake Bible, are so passionate and precise. I love old cookbooks like The Great Chefs of France series from the ’70s. Those may be dated, but they capture the spirit behind these three-star chefs who sacrificed so much to their cooking. And I love, love, love all of Paula Wolfert’s cookbooks including The Cooking of Southwest France and Paula Wolfert’s World of Food. She discovered so much before chefs did: the cooking of Gascony, duck fat, low-temperature salmon cooking; her confit recipe is a little masterpiece.
What’s one technique that everyone should know?
How to season food. Seasoning is a dynamic process and hard to get right. Everyone cooks differently, but home cooks tend to forget about acidity. Many young line cooks confuse salt and acidity; the biggest challenge may be to learn the difference, and how they work together. Generally, I’d just suggest tasting a lot and playing around with a dish until you like it.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient?
Rice wine vinegar. It can give life and dimension to a sauce without tasting acidic.
If you could invent an imaginary restaurant project, what would it be?
My fantasy restaurant would make enough for me to live on while leaving me ample time to spend with my children. It would be open three nights a week, we’d have about six customers a night and I’d do much of the cooking myself.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain and/or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
Jiro Ono’s restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro (the subject of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi). We’d all go to Jiro together, and watch him work, to watch the benefits of decades of practice.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
P for plant. Most of our cooking is plant-based. We definitely use fish and meat, but often more as a flavoring. The range of flavors and possibilities in working with plants is endlessly exciting.
What is your current food obsession?
Sea water. Some of our fishermen bring it to us from far out in the Pacific. We’ve been brining meats with it and making tofu with it.
What’s the best house wine?
The best house red wine is Sean Thackrey’s Pleiades, made in California. He changes the blend from vintage to vintage, but it’s always well balanced. I like that sense of discovery.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
My friend Chez Pim’s preserves. With a spoon. But don’t tell my wife, she doesn’t like me to eat things straight out of the container.
Best store-bought ingredient/product?
Besides Pim’s preserves? Tierra Vegetables’ dried chiles. They’re not all that new, but they come in a wonderful range of flavors from smoky to sweet, and I like spicy things.
Name a dish that defines you.
This dish came about when Coi first opened, because I’d never used matsutake mushrooms. I decided to serve the mushrooms with pine—maybe because I lived across the street from a pine grove—and a potato puree almost like a foam, which made a nice sweet base. Because some wood sorrel was also growing nearby, we added that for acidity then we quickly grilled the mushrooms. Of course, later I found out that matsutake means “pine mushrooms,” so I had discovered nothing, but the mushrooms and pine make such a nice combo. That gives an idea of how I work: Some of my ideas grow out of tradition, others come from where I live—from chewing on a pine needle.
Kitchen Calculator, which converts American dumbass measurements to metric.
Won Best New Chef at: Babette's, Sonoma, California (closed)
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.